Unpacked for Friday, June 30th, 2016

Amazon Trying a New Approach to Mobile that makes Sense – by Carolina Milanesi

This week, Amazon started offering Prime members a $50 discount on two smartphones models, the Moto G and the Blu R1 HD, as long as they agree to view lock screen ads similar to what the Fire tablets and the Kindle e-readers offer. With the discount, the Blue phone will cost $49.00 and the Moto G will cost $124.00. Amazon will not strip these devices of the standard Google apps as it did with the Fire phone but it will add its own shopping, video viewing, and playing music apps.

When the Fire phone was launched, it was a very confused proposition — high-end hardware with a price-point to match aimed at customers who were not already married to an ecosystem. That was not an easy match as most users who had not yet committed to iOS or Android by the time the Fire Phone launched in 2014 were more price sensitive and technology laggards who would not see the price of the Fire phone as appealing nor would they understand new features such as Dynamic Perspective and Firefly. Needless to say, the Fire Phone was a flop for Amazon.

This week’s proposition seems much more likely to give some good ROI to Amazon:

  1. The target is Prime members, a captivated audience who will be more interested than average in Amazon’s services like music and video
  2. The devices are a lower cost so they are more likely than not to attract users who are not already heavily engaged in an ecosystem although this might not be their first smartphones
  3. Leaving Google services such as the Chrome browser and the app store on the devices while adding Amazon’s apps for shopping and content is a win-win solution. Users will not feel they are compromising on their experience compared with getting the same phones or similar without the deal while Amazon still gets users engaged in what matters to their business: shopping and content consumption
  4. Although the fact these users are interested in the deal might point to a more price sensitive type, Amazon will know a lot about them as Prime Members which will help advertisers target their ads to get the highest return despite the price sensitivity
  5. Finally, there are consumers out there who are not prepared to pay a lot for a smartphone but that does not necessarily mean they do not have money to spend on anything else. Amazon and advertisers should know that

Amazon needs to widen its reach for its ecosystem but, most importantly for Alexa, this is a good step in the right direction.

Facebook tweaks News Feed to prioritize friends and family – by Jan Dawson

On Wednesday, Facebook announced it was tweaking its News Feed algorithms, with a couple of important implications. First of all, it would prioritize “friends and family” and secondly, it reiterated its commitment to treating news content in an unbiased way, while ensuring that content that purported to be news was, in fact, genuine.

The media has predictably responded to the news with more handwringing about Facebook’s role as both a major source of referral traffic and a major gatekeeper for content of all kinds. Though many news publications have gotten on board with Facebook’s Instant Articles program, almost all worry, to some extent, about Facebook’s power to dramatically reduce the amount of traffic they receive through the service. The latest changes only fuel those fears.

However, what’s likely motivating Facebook is a reported reduction in what it calls “organic sharing”, or the more personal posts member create organically, as opposed to third party URLs, videos, and other content members might share on the site. At least some members appear to feel that this content is less worth sharing because their friends and family are less likely to see it. Facebook clearly wants to assuage those fears by prioritizing this content in the News Feed, in an attempt to get this kind of sharing growing again. Interestingly, the news site, The Information, reported this week that average sharing per user is also down on Instagram recently, although it’s not clear this is as problematic as it seems.

For users, these changes should be subtle and many likely won’t even notice. By definition, Facebook’s algorithms only show us some of what our friends share, so it’s very hard to know what we’re missing and how well the stuff we do see reflects the broad range of content our connections are posting to the site. That also makes it tough to know when changes are made. However, Facebook absolutely needs to ensure people still have a sense of true connection to friends and family on the site or it simply becomes another repository of content, much easier to compete with than a true social network. The social element may have become less important to some users and to Facebook’s ability to monetize usage over recent years, but it can’t be ignored entirely.

From a media perspective, this is just another reminder of the immense power Facebook now has – something Ben wrote about earlier this week on the site. Facebook is both a massive source of traffic and an unpredictable (and therefore unreliable) partner as news sites try to grow traffic and monetize. Facebook readily admits that at least some Pages (and therefore some sites) will see reduced traffic as a result of the changes but it remains to be seen how hard it will hit various publications.

Windows 10 Anniversary Edition – by Bob O’Donnell

Microsoft announced the official launch date and availability of its next version of Windows 10 this week. On August 2, the company will release the Anniversary Update, a free update to all 350 million existing Windows 10 users that brings a host of new capabilities approximately one year after the first release of the OS.

Notable additions include extended support for inking and pen support across the OS and applications; more capabilities for Cortana, its voice-driven digital assistant (including access on the Windows 10 Home screen); and the ability to use its Windows Hello identity and authentication services across websites and supported applications (such as VPNs).

The Cortana additions should help make the service more useful, including the ability to ask questions when you aren’t logged into the PC (theoretically, a la Amazon Echo), as well as further integrating with Outlook and other personal information for more “assistant-like” capabilities.

The part I’m most excited about, however, are the extensions of Windows Hello identity management into the Edge browser. Leveraging extensions to the FIDO Alliance spec (previously dubbed FIDO 2.0, but now called Web Authentication), this is a major step towards a password-less world, finally. Essentially, the credentials from Windows Hello can be passed from the Edge browser to websites that require them, including online banking and commerce, and many more.

Everyone in the tech world acknowledges how horrendously broken passwords are and yet, there has been little real progress to solve the problem. While this development won’t fix everything, it does bring together biometric authentication and password management in an important way. In addition, the advanced FIDO 2.0 support in Windows 10 will enable the use of third-party devices, such as wearables, to pass authentication credentials over Bluetooth to a PC (or smartphone) in order to log in securely and automatically. (Apple announced some similar capabilities for the Apple Watch and iOS devices in the forthcoming version of iOS 10, so it looks like all the major players are finally moving in the direction of a less password-dependent world.)

The bottom line is the Anniversary Update for Windows 10 looks to be a useful one that should make the process of using a PC, both on its own and with other devices, a better one.

The First Autonomous Driving Fatality – Ben Bajarin

Unfortunately this past week, history was made in a very sad way. Tesla confirmed the first fatality involving a self-driving car occurred. Tesla put the event into perspective with the following paragraph:

We learned yesterday evening that NHTSA is opening a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a recent fatal crash that occurred in a Model S. This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles. It is important to emphasize that the NHTSA action is simply a preliminary evaluation to determine whether the system worked according to expectations.

The point here is to underscore that self-driving cars are actually doing slightly better per million miles driven than human-only operated cars. But there are far fewer self-driving cars on the road compared to human operating ones, so it really isn’t a fair comparison for now. The reason for the crash may be the most interesting part. According to Tesla’s account of what happened:

What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S. Had the Model S impacted the front or rear of the trailer, even at high speed, its advanced crash safety system would likely have prevented serious injury as it has in numerous other similar incidents.

Self-driving cars have a tremendous amount of technology in them. Thanks to advancements in computer vision and very powerful GPUs in these cars, they are able to essentially scan the roads for all cars, anticipate and model their movement against their own system, and react faster than humans can in many situations. Except in this scenario, the trailer and light combination made the oncoming car relatively invisible to the sensors and computer vision systems on the Tesla. This showcases one area, among others, where there is a blind spot (excuse the pun) in our current machine learning and computer vision technology for autonomous cars.

As far as computer vision has come, it still has a way to go. But most technology and science points in a direction where technology can and will help prevent more accidents and protect humans better than if we were driving ourselves. This point is hard to argue with. However, unfortunate moments like these remind us of how far we still have to go and how much innovation is still needed in this area.

Published by

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

2 thoughts on “Unpacked for Friday, June 30th, 2016”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *